The Congress party’s October 17 presidential contest has taken an interesting twist just two days ahead of the deadline for interested candidates for filing nominations for the poll. Rajya Sabha MP and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh is reportedly considering to contest the election and could file his nomination on September 30.
Singh, who had initially hinted at the possibility of entering the race only to then clarify that he isn’t interested in the post, appears to have changed his mind again in the backdrop of the intra-party crisis precipitated by MLAs loyal to Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot over the past 72 hours.
Names of other senior leaders such as Mallikarjun Kharge and Mukul Wasnik as well as Rahul Gandhi’s confidant and Congress organisational general secretary, KC Venugopal, have also been doing the rounds though none of them have so far indicated that they would file nomination for the poll.
Gehlot was the Gandhi family’s original choice to contest the election and had declared that he would file his nomination as per the wishes of the party and its high command. However, interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s decision to send observers to Jaipur on September 25 to consult party MLAs on the likely successor of the Rajasthan CM even before he could file his nomination for the election resulted in an avoidable crisis.
Apprehensive that the high command wanted to replace Gehlot with his bête noir and Tonk MLA Sachin Pilot, over 90 of the party’s 108 MLAs skipped the meeting of the Congress Legislative Party (CLP). Gehlot and his loyalists are opposed to Pilot’s elevation as the Tonk MLA had, two years ago, led an unsuccessful coup against the CM. Sonia had, at the time, cracked the whip on Pilot, who was removed as deputy chief minister and Rajasthan Congress chief. However, intervention by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and the late Ahmed Patel had prevented Pilot’s departure from the party. Pilot was reportedly assured that he would be made CM a year before the Rajasthan assembly polls due in end-2023.
On September 25, as party leaders Mallikarjun Kharge and Ajay Maken arrived in Jaipur to convene a meeting of the CLP where a one-line resolution was to be passed authorising Sonia to name the new CM, Gehlot’s loyalists convened a parallel meeting at the residence of senior Rajasthan cabinet minister Shanti Dhariwal in open defiance of the high command’s diktat. As many as 82 MLAs later met Rajasthan Assembly Speaker CP Joshi and tendered their resignation from the assembly as a pressure tactic.
Gehlot loyalists such as Dhariwal, Pratap Singh Khachariyawas and Mahesh Joshi, the party’s chief whip in the Rajasthan Assembly, also accused Maken of an anti-Gehlot bias. Dhariwal went to the extent of accusing the party high command of a “Punjab like conspiracy” to oust the Congress itself from power in the state, a clear reference to rout that the party suffered in Punjab earlier this year after it replaced Amarinder Singh with Charanjit Channi as the CM.
Gehlot told Kharge later that the meeting was not convened at his behest and claimed that he would “never go against the wishes of the Gandhi family and the party”. However, Congress sources say Sonia remained livid about her loyalist going rogue and embarrassing both her and the party at a time when he was handpicked by her to contest the Congress presidential election while Rahul Gandhi was trying to revive the party through the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
In their report submitted to Sonia on September 27 detailing the events in Jaipur, Kharge and Maken have accused Gehlot’s camp of “grave indiscipline”. Show cause notices have also been issued to Gehlot loyalists Dhariwal, Joshi and Dharmendra Rathore, granting them 10 days to explain their conduct.
Sources say Gehlot has been trying to speak with Sonia ever since but hasn’t been given an appointment. Sonia has, instead, asked senior leaders Ambika Soni and even Anand Sharma, a G-23 member who has attacked the leadership repeatedly, to “resolve the issues” with Gehlot. Sonia had earlier asked party veteran Kamal Nath to speak with Gehlot but sources say the discussions did not end the impasse as Gehlot remained resolute on his stand of not accepting Pilot as his successor in Jaipur.
A sign of hope for Gehlot
That Sonia had asked Soni and Sharma to talk to Gehlot was being viewed by some in the party as an indication that the interim Congress chief may yet forgive the Rajasthan CM his transgression and back his candidature for the party’s presidency if a seamless transition of power in Rajasthan was assured. However, Singh’s decision to throw his hat in the presidential contest is now being viewed by many in the party as a “definite sign” of Gehlot being pushed out of the race.
“You cannot embarrass the Gandhi family and then expect that there won’t be any consequences. What has happened in Jaipur in the past few days would have hurt Sonia much more than Pilot’s rebellion of two years ago because she always saw Gehlot as someone who would never betray her; that is why she wanted him to contest for the presidency in the first place. Gehlot used to say that his resignation (from the CM’s post) is always lying with Sonia and he would give up the post the moment she told him to do so, but his actions have now proved that those were just empty words and, more importantly, that he holds the CM’s position to be more important than the Congress presidency,” a senior Congress general secretary told The Federal.
Even as the crisis in Jaipur was still unfolding, many in the Congress had been wondering whether Singh would now be an “obvious choice” for the Gandhis to back in the presidential race against Shashi Tharoor, the outspoken and independent-minded three-term MP from Thiruvananthapuram who will also file his nomination on September 30.
Singh, like Gehlot, is a party veteran with vast experience in organisational matters, contesting elections as well as administration. He is also a die-hard Gandhi family and Congress loyalist who, despite being sidelined within the party for a short period during Rahul Gandhi’s presidential stint between 2017 and 2019, never publicly defied the party line on any matter. A contemporary of Gehlot, Singh also shares an excellent rapport with a majority of the party leaders from across the country. Perhaps more importantly in Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi’s scheme of things, Singh has also been a votary of promoting younger leaders in the party – even if, like the Gehlot-Pilot turf war, he too had a long-standing clash of ambitions with the much younger Jyotiraditya Scindia right until the latter exited the Congress and toppled the party’s government in Madhya Pradesh.
If the former Madhya Pradesh chief minister does succeed in getting the Gandhi family’s backing in the party’s presidential election – sources close to him told The Federal that he wouldn’t have entered the race had he not got a go-ahead from the Gandhis in the first place – it would suggest his reinstatement as a leader who enjoys the complete confidence of the party’s first family. Singh had enjoyed the Gandhi family’s unwavering trust for years, even after leading the Congress to its worst rout in Madhya Pradesh back in 2003, and was for nearly a decade after that decimation seen as someone mentoring Rahul in politics.
Though after the 2003 MP poll rout, Singh had stayed away from electoral politics for a decade, he was accommodated by Sonia as a powerful general secretary in the AICC and given charge of several crucial states. His stint as the in-charge of the party’s Uttar Pradesh desk had made him one of Rahul’s closest advisers. The failed experiment to revive the Congress in the state and subsequently Scindia’s growing stock in the Congress and proximity to Rahul had led to Singh’s marginalisation and eventual removal from the post of party general secretary. Though Sonia gave Singh two consecutive terms in the Rajya Sabha and brought him into the CWC as a permanent invitee, he was not given any crucial role by the Gandhis within the party in recent years and even during the 2018 MP Assembly polls he had to contend with just being head of the party’s coordination panel – a thankless but difficult job as it required him to ensure amity between the warring factions of Kamal Nath, Scindia, Suresh Pachouri, Arun Yadav, and his own.
However, Singh’s stock seems to be consistently on the rise within the party for the past year. He was roped in by Sonia for various intra-party panels and, when the party decided to launch its Bharat Jodo Yatra, he was made its chief coordinator; a role that has once again earned him the trust of the Gandhis. Though unapologetic in flaunting his identity of a ‘Sanatani Hindu’, Singh is a vocal votary of a secular and pluralistic polity – even if several of his comments to assert its importance have embarrassed the party in the past.
Singh’s aggressiveness an advantage
At nearly 75 years of age, Singh also doesn’t shy away from displays of aggressive street-fighting politics as has been evident from his ongoing participation in the Bharat Jodo Yatra or the combative protests that the Indian Youth Congress has organised against the Narendra Modi regime on various issues in Delhi in the recent past. As such, there is a section of influential party leaders who feel he could be a better choice for the party’s presidency as opposed to Gehlot, who holds his reputation of being an amicable and non-confrontational leader (except when it comes to Sachin Pilot, as some Congress leaders jokingly point out) very dear.
Congress sources told The Federal that if Singh indeed files his nomination for the party’s presidential election, it is “highly unlikely” that Gehlot would enter the race too. “Though Sonia has said that the Gandhis will stay neutral in the election and won’t endorse any candidate officially, everyone knows that they will have a choice. Obviously, they won’t back two people so I don’t see the possibility of both Gehlot and Singh contesting as nominees of the family against Tharoor, who also, for that matter, had consulted with Sonia before entering the contest. This doesn’t mean that a three-cornered contest is ruled out; if someone else wants to take his/her chances, the Gandhis won’t stop them but they will naturally back only one candidate,” a party Rajya Sabha MP told The Federal.
A clearer picture of who the contestants would be will, of course, emerge on September 30 once the deadline for filing nominations is over, if not on October 8 when the party will officially declare the list of candidates in the fray.